Ms. Marvel: Review

I remember Ms. Marvel from my childhood in the early 80s. Not this Ms. Marvel, of course – the Ms. Marvel who became Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was a man. Look, it’s all very complicated; all you really have to understand is that Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers, a woman) inherited the mantle of Captain Marvel from Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell, a man), leaving the title available to be adopted by Kamala Khan (a girl). Younger Marvel (comics) fans might be surprised at how long Carol Danvers was actually Ms. Marvel for; the first issue of her regular monthly title was in January 1977 (although Carol Danvers as a character had been around since the late 60s) and she continued in the role of Ms. Marvel (excepting brief sojourns as Binary and Warbird) until 2012, when she was promoted from a Ms. to a Captain. When Bree Larson took the role for the MCU in 2019, Carol Danvers had only been Captain Marvel for 7 years, as opposed to 35 as Ms. Marvel.

My main US comic-buying phase was in the noughties when I had plenty of disposable income and visited Forbidden Planet every other day. I’ve always had a fondness for Marvel’s classic female superheroes, so two of the titles that I bought regularly were the contemporary runs of She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel. Towards the end of the noughties, my income was substantially less disposable, due to getting married and my employers not giving me a pay rise for over a decade, so my purchasing of American comics dried up. On my limited funds, I did try to buy some of the Panini UK collected editions though and a favourite was Mighty World of Marvel, which repeated some of the more eclectic strips coming out of the USA. I was very surprised to see that one of these strips was Ms. Marvel – an all new Ms. Marvel, about whose existence I knew nothing.

The new Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, an American high school girl from a Pakistani Muslim background, who struggles to balance being the newest superhero in town against the demands of school, family and church. It’s a fascinating premise that’s both remarkably modern and distinctively Marvel in tone; the trials of the teenage superhero are, after all, the basis of the Amazing Spider-Man. Though the occasional sourpuss would point a finger at Ms. Marvel and accuse it of being ‘woke’, the strip is so light-hearted and likeable that you’d have to be making a really determined effort to dislike it and with Marvel Studios striving to appeal to all ages, particularly with their Disney+ content, the exploits of Kamala Khan (and friends) would seem like a very obvious candidate for a series on the streaming network.

After starting off with ‘B’ characters from their movies for a while, Marvel Studios are now taking a lot of risks with their Disney+ series by introducing new characters to the fold. So far we’ve had the Kate Bishop iteration of Hawkeye, Moon Knight and She-Hulk is on the horizon. After a faltering start taking too long to bring Black Widow to the screen, they’re also now championing the female superheroes and that’s got to be a good thing. Without the demands of cinema box office on their shoulders, the makers of Ms. Marvel have been able to cast a lead actress on her suitability for the part rather than her public image – and Iman Vellani was born to play this part! The 19-year old Pakistani-Canadian actress pretty much IS Kamala Khan and having seen her in this series; it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.

Although the look and home-life of Kamala Khan are faithful to the comic books, the Disney+ series has made some changes to her origin and her powers. In the comics, Kamala’s latent powers are revealed upon coming into contact with the Inhumans’ Terrigen Mist (a very involved cross-title arc that is not a part of the MCU), giving her the ability to embiggen* her limbs, enlarging and stretching them at will. In the TV series, it’s somewhat different; Kamala puts on an ornate bangle belonging to her grandmother, which unleashes in her the ability to control ‘hard light’, creating barriers, giant fists and platforms across which she can cross great distances. Some may balk at these changes, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because Ms. Marvel is far more about Kamala Khan and her life than it is about punching killer robots through buildings.

In her Disney+ adventures, Kamala Khan is joined by her friends and family, who are an important part of the narrative: boy-pal Bruno (Matt Lintz) shares Kamala’s geek credentials and also has a significant crush on her, Yasmeen (Nakia Badahir) is contrastingly both more traditional and more outgoing than her friend and Kamala’s older brother Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) is more conservative and church-led. The way that the series represents Yasmeen and Aamir is very refreshing; they are frequently seen in the Mosque, but there’s no sense in which their devotion to their religion is seen as oppressive or preachy. Similarly, Kamala’s mother and father (Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur) are traditionalists, who want their daughter raised in accordance with traditional Muslim values, but they don’t shun Western popular culture, so you get fun and heart-warming scenes such as Kamala’s father dressed as a rather portly, bearded Incredible Hulk.

Much of the early episodes extrapolate upon Kamala’s family and the discovery of her powers, but we soon move into the story proper, when it is revealed that Kamala’s grandmother was a being from another dimension who may or may not have been a Djinn (a Genie to us Western folk). She encounters Kamran (Rish Shah), a boy at school on whom she has a crush – much to Bruno’s chagrin – though it is revealed that Kamran and is mother Najma (Nimra Bucha) are ‘Clandestines’, a secret society of Djinn who seek to return to their own dimension, even though opening up the portal to do so would cause untold damage to our world. The fact that the boy upon whom Kamala has a crush turns out to be a wrong ‘un is the emotional heart of the story and is bolstered by Bruno’s jealousy that his friend is being taken away from him.

In part of the story, Kamala travels to India during the Partition of 1947, a terrible humanitarian crisis that occurred when the British Raj pulled out of India and left the country to divide itself into two separate states on religious grounds, India and Pakistan. It’s an incredibly complex historical issue and the series does well to not over-simplify it in a way that some TV series have in the past. Neither does it delve into it too deeply, because the sequence is essentially about Kamala getting some perspective on her family’s past, not a history lesson. Although Partition was a defining moment in history for a great many people, it’s only recently getting the exposure it deserves here in the UK and I imagine it’s even less well-known in the USA, so it’s laudable that they chose to include it in a series like Ms. Marvel.

The thing that I love about the Disney+ MCU series is that they all strive to be different. It would be very easy for the strand to fall into a cookie-cutter similarity with a very definite house style, but it does not; the creators are given a lot of freedom to create something unique and Ms. Marvel is no exception. Filmed in the quick-cut Nickelodeon style, the action features off-the-cuff narration from Kamala and cuts between schoolbook sketches and animation. It’s the perfect style for this story. Why would you tell the story of a lively 16-yar old in a dry, serious style? Somewhere in an alternate universe, there’s a version of Ms. Marvel filmed in the dark and ominous style that saturates the DCU and it’s just awful. This series is exactly as it should be, fast and chaotic with a mixture of different kinds of music – absolutely spot on!

Ms. Marvel won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, of that much I’m certain, but there’s such a lot to recommend it. Iman Vellani is just perfect in the role – a star in the making! It would be easy for a series like this to trip up and make Kamala Khan an annoying brat, but she’s just such a joy to behold that it’s impossible to dislike her. My one and only disappointment is that you never actually get to see Kamala in the Ms. Marvel outfit until the very end of the series, but I can see why this was necessary and when you do get to see it, it’s probably more faithful to the comic book original than most of the MCU characters. Ms. Marvel makes a compromise between changes to the character’s origins and powers and its authenticity to the look and feel of its source material – ant it comes up trumps in every respect.

I’m delighted that Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan will return, on the big screen this time, in The Marvels, alongside Bree Larson as Captain Marvel. I really enjoyed the Captain Marvel movie of 2019 and found that, much like when I was reading comic books as a boy, it didn’t bother me that the protagonist was female and in many ways I actually preferred it. I imagine there’s something deeply Freudian about the idea of being protected by a strong female presence, but I don’t care. Captain Marvel is a strong woman and Ms. Marvel is a strong young woman and it’ll be great to see them together on the big screen. Until then, we’ve got the Ms. Marvel TV series, which is well worth a look if you were sitting on the fence about whether or not to watch it.

*A made-up word that originated in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’, but has somehow inexplicably passed into the lexicon of American youth.

‘Ms. Marvel’ is currently streaming on Disney+

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